Men Talk about Mars, Women Talk about Venus

Last month, a variety of parenting blogs were in an uproar over the story of a Canadian family that didn’t feel like sharing the sex of newborn Storm with the rest of the world. The media had a field day with the notion of raising a “genderless” child, even after Storm’s mother published an explanation making it clear that their goal was to buffer the child against the relentless gender stereotyping we foist on infants from day one. From garish pink onesies that proclaim “Daddy’s Little Girl” and powder blue “Little Man” t-shirts, to letting our girls’ hair grow out and cutting our boys’ hair short, to offering our girls a doll and our boys a ball, we indicate to our children through subtle and overt actions what their future role might be in society: girl or boy, woman or man.

Within this discussion about de-emphasizing gender norms for the most vulnerable members of our culture—those who are unable to think for themselves—a lot of attention has paid to bucking gendered trends in toys, clothing, and hair style, but only one news piece that I saw brought up the subject of language:
"It is very courageous to challenge [the world] on adjectives that you use on children," [Cheryl] Kilodavis [author of the children’s book My Princess Boy] tells ParentDish. "Instead of saying what a strong boy what a pretty girl, they are saying what a strong or beautiful child."
Language is the most important tool that humans ever developed. It allows us to collate and categorize information to make sense of our world, and it allows us to pass on that information to succeeding generations. But language differs around the world – not only in the words used to describe something, but in the number of words used to describe something. That is, the words used by a group of people generally reflect the interests and concerns of those people – so people in cold climates have a larger range of words for cold-weather phenomena than do people living in warm climates, who may have a larger range of words related to their own environment.

This means that language can also differ along gender lines. In a paper that is often assigned in introductory anthropology courses, Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker discuss the reasons for “male-female miscommunication.” Rather than looking to psychological differences between the sexes to explain differences in communication styles, Maltz and Borker think we should be discussing sociolinguistic subcultures, or the culturally-influenced differences between men’s and women’s approaches to communication. They suggest that women tend to use language to negotiate and express relationships; we tend to use a lot of personal and inclusive pronouns, interject questions and comments in order to show interest; and we are concerned with making segues between topics. On the other hand, jokes and stories are highly valued in men’s speech; loud and aggressive speech is common; and put-downs and insults are normal ways of talking with friends.

What about actual gendered words and phrases? Sure, English, like many languages, has masculine and feminine pronouns, as well as gendered nouns for various relationships and occupations. But we also have more subtly gendered vocabulary, as illustrated in the quote above: we praise our strong boys and our pretty girls. Two researchers at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences at the University of Trento (Italy) recently decided to empirically test the question of whether there is a gender bias in what women and men talk about. Their goal was not anthropological, but rather computational - to find a way to model “common sense knowledge” as part of the eventual perfection of artificial intelligence (HerdaÄźdelen & Baroni 2011):
Common sense knowledge consists of the simple facts that nearly every person knows but almost never states explicitly because of the very assumption that it is already shared by everyone. Some examples are that mountains are taller than buildings, grocery has a price, or rivers flow downhill. The assumption that common sense knowledge is shared is what allows us to communicate with other people and interact with our surroundings in an efficient and natural way. Therefore, an AI system needs to possess common sense if it aims to interact with people in a natural way.
That is, we have all been enculturated into a particular way of life, and we expect people of different ages, occupations, and genders (among other qualities) to interact with us in different ways:
Prejudices and stereotypical knowledge present an intriguing aspect of common sense. As human beings, we rely on (and possibly suffer from) stereotypical expectations. Obviously, we would not want to engineer an AI with its own prejudices and stereotypes, but on the other hand, if an AI system is to relate to humans, it should know about the stereotypical expectations as well—whether it is right or wrong, an AI should know that (we expect that) women like shopping and men like football. Without an explicit knowledge of the stereotypes, such beliefs can be implicit, hidden, and intermixed with other “objective” facts in a knowledge base.
The authors, HerdaÄźdelen and Baroni, analyzed a data set consisting of over ten million tweets broadcast from the U.S. in English over Twitter from November 2009 to February 2010. Cross-referencing each Twitter user’s first name with the database of male and female infants’ first names put out by the U.S. Social Security Administration, the authors isolated 5.2 million tweets belonging to men and 5.9 million tweets belonging to women. And they did find gender bias in certain phrases. For example, “[want to] make money” ranked numbers one and three for “masculine” phrases. On the “feminine” side, they found “go [to] bed” and “feel like.” The coolest thing about this research, though, is that the authors set up a nifty online widget – at – where you can put in any word or phrase you want, to see how it falls along gender lines.

It’s generally assumed that women in American culture distinguish among more color words than men do, possibly as a result of the myriad colors in clothing and makeup. Our parents and our friends likely train us to be aware of these subtleties. Let’s examine this using Tweet-O-Life:

Whereas “red” is basically 50/50, slightly more women than men used the word “maroon” and many more used the word “scarlet.” It’s not a perfect test, of course – those women may be talking about the Scarlet Letter or Scarlet O’Hara. The brilliance of this widget is that you can click over to “detailed query” and find that, while the men are tweeting about “scarlet” with “red,” “knight,” “fever,” and “sin,” the women are tweeting about it with “letter.”

How about language relating to children and childcare? Our “common sense” tells us that women still do the majority of child-rearing.

The term “infant” is the only one that more men say than women, and “toddler” is disproportionately said by women. Interestingly, whereas men used the word “toddler” with words like “autism,” “grandmother,” and “craft,” women used the word with “bed,” “nap,” and “scream.” The diversity of names for children may not be split too heavily along gender lines, but the words used with “toddler” suggest that women may be the primary (naptime?) caregivers.

What if we try something like “computer”? As with “red”, we get basically a 50/50 split between men and women. The really interesting differences come in the detailed query:

Men talk about computers as if they’re actively engaging with them or at least bragging about them. They tweet about their processors, the gigabytes they have, the operating system they’re running, and how skillfully they can manipulate them. Women, on the other hand, talk about computers just as often, but mention their aesthetic appeal and express defeat at technology they can’t control. Even a seemingly gender-neutral word like “computer” is not, as men and women describe it differently.

I tasked some of my friends with finding the most “masculine” and “feminine” words possible. One tried “drywall” and “chainsaws” (per The Oatmeal ) to no avail. After some trial and error, this is what we came up with:

Only 10% of the tweeted mentions of the operating system Linux were by women, and only 11% of the tweets that mention Justin Bieber were written by men. (If you can find a word that is more gender-biased, please leave it in the comments!)

With such strongly gendered words in evidence, how could NPR ask on June 23 if we’re nearing “The End of Gender?” The article ends with a quote from neuroscientist Lise Eliot, who suggests that:
if parents did not buy into the gender stereotyping of children's toys and clothes, kids would stay open-minded longer during childhood. The goal is to keep girls physically active, curious and assertive, and boys sensitive, verbal and studious.
Pink and blue onesies are problematic, as are marketing campaigns aimed at encouraging a strict gender division in kids’ toys – as one of my favorite blogs, Sociological Images, is often pointing out -- but refusing to buy gendered toys and clothes only goes so far when we still call our girls “pretty” and our boys “strong,” or praise our boys for not crying and our girls for being quiet.

The way we speak is conditioned in our society by geographical area, education level, race, class, ethnicity, status, and gender. We’ve been trained since before birth to pick up on these differences, as they give us a world of information about the person we’re talking to. One of the salient conclusions of the HerdaÄźdelen and Baroni study is that men and women on Twitter tend, by and large, to tweet about what we expect them to tweet about. They perform the gender roles we expect of them, and their language reveals that.

The question remains, why do men talk about Linux and women talk about Bieber? Is language informing our outlook on the world, or is culture informing our linguistic patterns? The answer is probably a bit of both.

A. Herdagdelen & M. Baroni (2011). Stereotypical gender actions can be extracted from web text. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

Maltz, D. & R. Borker. 2007. A cultural approach to male-female miscommunication. In: A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication, Essential Readings, L. Monaghan and J. Goodman, eds., Ch. 20, pp. 161-178. Blackwell Publishing.


Keith said…
Well there goes my productivity! "Modern warfare" and "street fighter" reach almost linuxian levels. Javascript is even closer.
But can you find any words that reach Bieberian levels? I think it says something that it's easier to find things that predominantly men tweet about but harder to find things that predominantly women tweet about. Perhaps women talk broader and men talk deeper? Men are easier to stereotype in their interests than women? :)
OK, my friend Mitch sent me these on Facebook, and all are 75% or more on the women's side:


Although Mitch found "husband" the two-word phrase "my husband" is even more gender-skewed.
Patrick said…
Perl = 94% manly, which I believe is a new record. There are definitely manlier languages, but apparently not popular enough to show up in the sample. Ruby does show up but is diluted by women talking about earrings.
I thought perl vs. purl would be a good comparison, since Mitch found that women talk about knitting. But no one apparently mentions purling in their tweets.
Mitch said…
With two-word phrases you can really get some skewed results. Check out the saccharine "my hubby." Biological difference is also much more poorly represented here than I thought. I tried a litany of reproductive ailments that are more commonly associated with women to no avail - one could puzzle out the majority-male use of "yeast infection" for example. There are clearly words though that take on differential gendered meanings though e.g. pluck, prejudice, sensibility, blow, etc.
hey retards, there's a difference between "11% of men mention bieber" and "11% of bieber utterances come from men".
Aaron said…
I am a guy, and I am posting this from Linux (a debian distribution), and have never heard of Justin Bieber. Culture and language has something to do with this, but the main reason is that, like many computer programmers, I have an extreme male brain.

Your article ends with a false dichotomy. I believe you could use any language or any cultural environment, and you /still/ would never get women (on average) more interested in Linux than men.

Something like this has been tried. In the Soviet Union, for 80+ years, 50% of engineers were women by government mandate. As soon as the mandate was removed, the number of women engineers reduced (Pinker, Susan 2008). (There have been other such totalitarian social experiments, all with the same result.)

So you see, it is more than a question of just language and culture, but biology is in there too, and, most importantly, nothing can be considered by itself. Trying to do so is an elementary mistake, esp. for a scientist.
TOWTANUSA is correct. I've updated the post to reflect that, of the tweets that mention Linux, 10% were written by women, and of the tweets that mention Bieber, 11% of those were written by men. Whoops.

Aaron - You raise an interesting point. Most aspects of being human are likely a product of both biology and culture. Language is hard to figure out, though: after all, we're all capable - males and females - of creating language equally. The question is really what do men and women talk about? The Maltz and Borker article I reference suggests looking for gendered linguistic differences in children's play. But they don't really propose an extra-cultural origin for the differences. I'm sure there are studies about gendered language usage within other languages (that is, those that rely on gender of parts of speech to convey meaning). I haven't read this literature, but it would be interesting to know if a less gendered language like English creates less gender division within society than, say, French/France or German/Germany.
Anonymous said…
i think that the source of this study which is "Tweeting/Twitter" is really not an accurate tool for measurement ... the source (tweeting) itself narrows the results down to people who have access to the technology, excluding a large number of (men/women) who do not have access to 'tweet', tweet as a source also narrows down the 'social/group and educational level' to only those people who are exposed to this kind of 'tweeting' technology ....

basically, basing this re-search on a source relying only on 'tweets' gives a result that is actualy biased in itself ....
pconroy said…

I don't think male and female brains are as malleable as you seem to suggest. I think the brains we are born with to a large extent bootstrap the subsequent culture we are surrounded with. So the arrow of causality goes from:
DNA --> Brain --> Culture

Let me give you the results of a little experiment that happened when I was a kid (sample n=2).
My aunt would came to visit from England and bring a suitv ase of gifts every year. She would visited with lots of families of nieces and nephews, and dispense the gifts. That year we were the last, and all she had left were 2 identical, cheap plastic, dolls. My sister 5 yo got one and I 4 yo got the other. My sister asked my Mom for a brush and set to brushing her doll's hair. Then she pretended to be having tea with the doll. Whereas I was interested in how my doll's arms and legs could move 360 degrees, so ripped off the doll's clothes to get a better look at the joints. Then I realized that by holding one arm, I could wind up the other, and it would spin like a propellor. Next I removed the arms and legs, to see why this was, and discovered a thick elastic band holding then together. Next I found that I could jamb an arm into a leg slot, but while trying to jamb the leg into the arm slot, I ripped the doll's arm slot. So then I resorted to using the leg with the elastic band as a catapult... and so on.

My sister would grow up to be a teacher, and I would grow up to be an engineer.

So the concept of genderized words and/or toys is I feel meaningless. Young toddlers already have very different brains based on their sex, and nothing cultural activists do will change that very much.
Well, the problem with most gender discussions is that we tend to essentialize these categories: boy/girl, man/woman, male/female. These categories have lasted a very long time, but we're coming to understand more and more that humans are complicated. And, most importantly, that we're a product of both biology and culture (of nature and nurture).

The problem with overly-gendered language, toys, clothes, etc., is that we're trying to predetermine our kids' identities at a time that they can't speak for themselves. We as adults find it easier to think of things in binary - it's in our nature (up/down, black/white, male/female). But nature can't be forced into a binary.

It's a good idea, then, to take steps - as the adults who run the show - to pass on the complexities of life to our kids. We can do this by not overly-dichotomizing things. We can't say "only boys play with trucks" nor can we only tell girls that they're "pretty." This forces the complexities of identities into small boxes.

Our biology may indeed influence our interests and personalities. But that doesn't mean that our biology predetermines our classification into one of two narrow categories. Our culture does that, and from the standpoint of an anthropologist, I find that troubling.
karen kilmer said…
when i was small my parents dressed me up in frilly dresses and i played with dolls when my brother came along when i was two then they started dressing me exactly like my brother as i got older and started to show that i was a female they would make me wear the loosed fitting clothes exactly like my brother boys shoes and all it was horrible i was made fun of my whole lifeto this day i cringe at the sight of makeup or even dress clothes the sad thing is it made my brother hate women even though hes married and makes his wifwe dress up and wear makeup all the time his daughter he dresses her just like i was made to he didnt start that until his son was born and now they dress just when i had a child i dressed her pretty not always in dresses bit i bought her both cars and barbies she played with both and now she does the same with her son i stopped the cycle with the way my parents raised me and my brother.

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